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Transcripts shed light on detainees

Published April 4, 2006

GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, Cuba - In 2,733 pages of declassified documents released Monday to the Associated Press, men accused of helping terrorist groups or Afghanistan's former Taliban regime pleaded for freedom while U.S. military officers often painstakingly tried to find holes in their stories.

The previously classified transcripts were the second batch of Guantanamo Bay detainee hearings released by the Pentagon in response to a lawsuit by the AP. They identified more of the prisoners who have been secretly held without charges for up to four years while the U.S. military determines how dangerous they may be.

A review of the documents indicated that they contain no major revelations about high-profile detainees, but offered more insight into who has been detained and why they ended up in the custody of U.S. authorities.

Most of the men said they were innocent and would pose no threat if set free.

"My conscience is clear," said Algerian detainee Mohamed Nechla, who was accused of plotting to attack the U.S. Embassy in Bosnia. "If I left this place my only concern would be bread on the table for my wife and children."

Zia Ul Shah, a Pakistani accused of being a driver for the Taliban, said he hated his American captors at first but his feelings softened after he learned about the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

"In the beginning I did not like Americans at all," Shah said. "I had never seen Americans. In the beginning when I came here the interrogations were tough and I started hating them more, but then ... someone showed me pictures from 9/11. Then I realized they have a right to be angry. My hate toward Americans was gone."

Some 715 prisoners have passed through the cells of the U.S. military base since it began receiving men captured in the U.S. war on terror more than four years ago. Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said 490 of them are now held at the base, which hugs the arid southeastern shores of Cuba.

Whitman told reporters at the Pentagon that authorities have gained a wealth of knowledge by interrogating detainees.

"We've learned about al-Qaida's pursuit of WMDs," Whitman said, referring to weapons of mass destruction. "We've learned about their methods of recruitment, location of recruitment centers. We've learned about their skill sets, their terrorist skill sets, both general and specialized operative training."

A reading of some of the documents released Monday showed no such stark admissions, although any records of interrogations and the classified portions of the hearings were not included. The hearings - called Administrative Review Boards - were held to determine whether detainees still posed threats to the United States.

Human rights group Amnesty International, a frequent critic of U.S. policies in its war on terror, said the transcripts would most likely reveal information that was insignificant or had been previously released.

"Nevertheless, Amnesty International welcomes today's actions, as even the seemingly minor details in these documents may help shed light on the secrecy surrounding the detainees' cases," said Eric Olson, the group's acting director of government relations.

Each of the detainees who faced such a review hearing was previously determined by other Guantanamo Bay panels - Combatant Status Review Tribunals - to be an "enemy combatant," meaning they fought against the United States or its allies or provided support to the Taliban, al-Qaida or "associated forces."

Shah said he felt his testimony at the earlier tribunal had been ignored.

"Should I consider (you all) the same or should I expect justice?" he asked.

The presiding U.S. military officer assured Shah the evidence would be considered fairly:

"Well, I hope that you would believe that we would do you justice after we review all the information," said the officer, whose name was censored from the transcript.

The detainees often pleaded with the military review panels, seeking not only freedom but also money or help finding a job.

"In case of my release, I would like to say that I am a poor man and don't have enough money to start a business, but I will accept any jobs from the Americans or the current government of Afghanistan," said Abdullah Mujahid, an Afghan.

Many detainees repeatedly denied having links to Osama bin Laden, al-Qaida or the Taliban, insisting they were simply caught up in the war zone. Some were accused of being low-level members of the Taliban, who imposed strict Islamic rule from 1996 to 2001.

"I don't know bin Laden and I don't know anyone else," said an Afghan detainee named Gano Nasorllah Hussain. "I am a butcher and I have a shop in my village."

In response to a Freedom of Information lawsuit filed by the AP, the Defense Department released some 5,000 pages of transcripts March 3.

Most of those pages were from the Combatant Status Review Tribunals. If a detainee is determined by the panel to be an "enemy combatant," they fall under a classification that human rights groups complain is vague and confers fewer legal protections than prisoners of war under the Geneva Conventions.

[Last modified April 4, 2006, 03:15:07]

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